The standard of standards

EXE Magazine, January 1998

C++ finally made it as a standard, Sun has been approved by the ISO as a Publicly Available Specification (PAS) submitter for Java. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced the release of XML1.0 as a W3C Proposed Recommendation...

Suddenly there's a flurry of standards being approved or near the final steps of approval. But do we need standards and do we really want them?

Usually by standard we expect a generally agreed specification maintained by an independent body. There are two issues with this broad definition: first, how independent the standardisation body and process has to be. And second, how long the whole process takes. If you don't believe in the independence of the organisation guaranteeing a standard then what's the point, you might as well use any proprietary technology promoted by an industry heavyweight. For instance, do you consider the PAS statute of Sun sufficient not to deem Java a proprietary technology? And what about ActiveX and the Open Group?

Trickier and more interesting is the question of standardisation time. For any standardisation process requires several review processes. In essence what is standardised is a technology which was developed several months, if not years, ago. The C++ standard took eight years!

At a recent Java conference, Borland's DavidI was recalling a conversation he had with Bjarne Stroustrup about the C++ and Java standardisation processes. It seems that Stroustrup was of the opinion that it is dangerous to standardise a language too early in its life. Once you have a standard you don't want to change anything about it, preventing experimentation and killing potential improvements.

Since Java is so young and Sun still has quite a stronghold on its standardisation process, I would have thought that the PAS statute would have been badly received by most Java tools vendors. To my surprise all the ones I've talked to are very happy with the way it is going. They all feel that Sun is doing a great job with the language. Of course I haven't asked Microsoft...

David Mery

(C)1998, Centaur Communications Ltd. Reproduced with the kind permission of EXE Magazine.